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Zimbabwe is heading to elections next year, but anyone who hopes that the polls will translate into a better life for the majority of the people is deluded. Elections are merely contests for state power and never about finding the best vision and leadership for the country. With the ruling ZANU-PF party determined to remain in power, the likelihood of election-related violence in Zimbabwe is high.

Elections have long been held as a stabilising approach to political transitions in established Western democracies. They are a marker of good governance and a symbol of a country’s democratic credentials. Elections are generally held in countries with multiparty political systems and legitimise political contestation and transfers of power. It is through elections that leaders are required to gain their mandate to govern.

In Africa, elections are promoted as necessary to institutionalising political accountability and transparency. Citizens have been awakened to the power of the ballot and increasingly turn to it to hold their governments to account. Africans want an end to a long era of strongmen, one party states, and the dominant party syndrome. Zimbabweans are no different and have taken to the streets to demand regime change. They also maintain hope in the power of elections to usher in a post-ZANU-PF and post-Mugabe Zimbabwe. However, given past failures, elections are unlikely to bring about a change in government. Why then, do they continue to be promoted as a viable approach to political transitions? It is perhaps time we acknowledged that elections increase state instability, foster conflict, and safeguard regime security. It is dangerous to narrowly equate democratisation with elections and multipartism.

Elections in Southern Rhodesia 

Elections and multiparty politics are not new to Zimbabwe’s political fabric. Their lineage can be traced back to colonial, Southern Rhodesian rule. Indeed, the difficulty with democracy in Zimbabwe is not that independence failed to result in a departure from the colonial constitutional past as it continued under a new label. Neither is it a matter of identifying the so-called emergence of authoritarian regimes with ZANU-PF rule. Doing so would beg the question of what makes ZANU-PF rule any more authoritarian than colonial rule.

The nation-state’s principal function in the colonial era was to entrench the rights of a white minority through the valorisation of the rule of law and introduction of formalised legal codes. This included a written constitution awarding whites more rights than blacks; it also restricted blacks’ ability to engage in the political process. Most black people could not vote, with only those who were central to the colonial government’s regime consolidation efforts exercising limited power. Elections emerged in this context.

The multi-party system also emerged as a means of reinforcing racial hierarchies and divisions. Up until the 1950s, Rhodesia experienced a dominant party syndrome, with the Rhodesia Party returning to power with each successive election until 1962, albeit under different names. Under Ian Smith’s Rhodesian Front government, a one-party state structure became deeply entrenched. Elections continued to perform the primary function of serving white minority interests. The constitution and rule of law which stemmed from it resulted in the introduction of legislation restricting and criminalising the black majority from organising itself and demonstrating against the white minority regime.

Elections in post-independence Zimbabwe

If we narrowly equate democratisation with elections and multipartism, then we fail to recognise that democracy’s normative content has, thus far, been authoritarian. Zimbabwe inherited this authoritarian, democracy-as-elections, legacy. The ZANU-PF regime has made frequent amendments to the constitution to safeguard regime security and restrict citizens’ freedom of expression and political movements. In a 1981 interview, then prime minister Mugabe stated that, “My position is, it’s a luxury to engage in the politics of opposition.” Arguably, under ZANU-PF rule and President Robert Mugabe’s leadership, the government has served even narrower interests and networks revolving around the strongman.

When Zimbabwe gained independence on 18 April 1980, two liberation movements were transformed into political parties: Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) and the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU). The Gukurahundi Massacres, which occurred against Ndebele people regarded as dissidents and resulted in roughly 20, 000 people dead, led to the signing of the 1987 Zimbabwe National Unity Accord which merged the two parties to form the Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) and institutionalised a one-party state structure. A strong opposition party able to contest ZANU-PF’s hold on power only emerged in 1999 as the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). MDC, under Morgan Tsvangirai’s leadership, has lost most parliamentary and presidential elections.

Small opposition parties have generally littered Zimbabwe’s political landscape, mainly under the leadership of people who left or were expelled from the major political parties, MDC-T and ZANU-PF. Recently, in March 2016, the former Vice-President of Zimbabwe and ZANU-PF, Joice Mujuru, formed her opposition party, Zimbabwe People First (ZimPF), after expulsion from the ruling party.

None of the parties on Zimbabwe's political scene, including the ruling party, exhibit substantial policy differences. Most do not directly engage on issues affecting Zimbabweans nor do they put forward solutions or engage in dialogue with Zimbabweans. The main point of difference between opposition parties and ZANU-PF is the former’s collective desire to see ZANU-PF and Mugabe gone and greater openness to engagement with the West. Issue-based politics has, therefore, been struggling to gain a substantive foothold in the country. Given this fraught history, it is no surprise that elections tend to be characterised by violence.

No viable opposition exists to challenge ZANU-PF. The latter will never concede an electoral loss. Opposition parties are disunited, and each lacks a vision about which direction to take the country. This is amidst increasing social, military and party fractures, an economy in dire straits, and Zimbabweans increasingly fleeing to South Africa and other neighbouring countries as both immigrants and refugees. Zimbabwe’s current multi-party structure betrays selfish political ambitions and a lack of concern with human security and national stability.

As the 2018 general election approaches, we must ask ourselves if it is reasonable to continue upholding elections as a model of political transition, or if another Government of National Unity should be pursued to avoid the country’s short-term destabilisation? At these crossroads, Zimbabwe faces a real possibility of civil war.

* Tinashe Jakwa (@TinasheJakwa) is a Master of International Relations student at the University of Western Australia.



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